The Durfees is a story as old as the woods—the story of a father passing his love of hunting and wilderness adventure on to his child. Of course, there are twists. The father is thirty-six year-old Doug Krings, a native of Lewistown, Montana, who finds himself at the center of a fight to prevent a few thousand acres of spectacular public land from slipping into the hands of billionaires. The child is not Doug’s son, as you might expect, but his twelve year-old daughter, Emma, a passionate hunter in her own right. She is the future of the Montana outdoor culture that her father cherishes, and she is the reason he fights. She also has to be back at school on Tuesday.
The Durfees will follow Doug and Emma over the course of a long November weekend as they hunt elk in the Durfee Hills, an austere landscape of undulating grasslands interspersed with stands of ponderosa and douglas fir, home to an elk herd that numbers upwards of five thousand. The elk of the Durfee Hills spend much of their time on private land that belongs to Montana’s most prominent landowners, the brothers Dan and Farris Wilks. The Wilks almost never allow hunter access, so the herd is mostly out of reach. But the Wilks don’t control all of the Durfees—at least not yet. There’s an archipelago of public land parcels totaling about three thousand acres scattered in the ocean of Wilks property. For public land hunters, flying is the only way into the Durfees. We made the trip in a Cessna 185 piloted by Doug’s friend Jeff Patnode. It’s tough access, but it’s better than nothing—which is what the public would have if it were up to the Wilks.
The Wilks, who amassed a $3 billion fortune in the Texas fracking boom, own nearly 400,000 acres in Montana and Idaho. Back in 2011, they bought the 62,000-acre N Bar Ranch in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, which entirely surrounds the public parcels in the Durfee Hills. The Wilks claim that the presence of public land within their holdings creates management headaches, and none seem to grate more than the Durfees. Since 2012, they’ve put multiple land exchange proposals before the Bureau of Land Management, offering to trade ranchland adjacent to the Missouri Breaks National Monument for the public land in the Durfees. They insist the trade is fair, that the public would even come out on top, with expanded access to tens of thousands of acres in the Missouri Breaks and all the wildlife that lives there. But Doug Krings isn’t buying it. “We already have access to the Missouri Breaks in several places, so we’d essentially be trading public land for public land—which is something you never want to do,” he says.
Along with sportsmen from all over Montana, Krings led a successful petition to prevent the BLM from considering the earliest version of the Wilks proposal. "It's not just about hunting—this is critical elk habitat, and without public holdings in the Durfees, the public and its agencies lose any ability to manage or enjoy this elk herd. These elk become a de-facto private herd.” Along with the timeless story of a father and daughter bonding over hunting in a rugged Montana landscape, The Durfees will explore the ongoing struggle to keep the Durfees public—a struggle that Krings says is far from over. "They'll keep coming back with new proposals. They're not giving up, and we can't afford to either.”
The Durfees is about more than a father-daughter hunt, or one public land hunter’s battle against a pair of billionaires. The Durfees will offer a window into complex issues surrounding the changing demographics of the American West, challenges to the North American model of wildlife management, the future of public land, and the way that average citizens can marshall resources to take on forces that seem overwhelming. The film will move between the up-close excitement of the hunt to the macro-level background of the Durfees land exchange proposal. We will seek to understand how the Durfees saga plays into regional and national dynamics with regard to public and private land ownership. We’ll look into shifts in hunter access to private land that have occurred in recent years as more landowners shift to exclusive outfitter relationships, making public land even more important for the average hunter. We’ll deal with the messy question of de-facto privatization of publicly-owned wildlife, as landowners like the Wilks expand and consolidate their holdings on a scale that was unimaginable before the age of billionaires.
Along with our coverage of Krings and his allies, we’ll weigh the merits of the Durfees land exchange through interviews with people who support and oppose the idea. We’ll seek to understand the governmental and democratic processes that are required to accomplish a land exchange, and we’ll present examples of the successes and failures of past land exchanges to provide context.
The Durfee Hills are as much a cinematographer’s dream as they are a hunter’s dream, with infinite vistas and a perpetual drama of light and shadow playing out across the prairie. It’s a landscape that inspires awe and reflection, one of those rare places that possesses a value that cannot be measured in numbers of elk or dollars per acre. The Durfees’ stunning visuals will celebrate this unquantifiable value, asking the question: What does it mean to treat these places like commodities that can be traded and sold? At a time when state governments throughout the West and groups like the American Lands Council are pushing legislation that would result in the sale or transfer of public lands, and just a few months after the Bundy stand-off at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge came to a bloody end, we think that question is more pressing than ever.
We found out about the Durfees controversy through Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a Missoula-based nonprofit devoted to conservation and public access throughout the United States. It was the autumn of 2015, and the Wilks had recently conducted working groups across the state and put forward a thorough proposal for the Durfees land exchange to the BLM’s regional office. We had recently launched a media project called Mission: Montana, intended to connect people more deeply with the wild places where they recreate, and we were looking for an elk hunting story that would involve a conservation and public access angle. The Durfees seemed like a perfect fit. Local newspapers had covered the details of the various land exchange proposals, but we wanted to go beyond the mere facts and personalities and try to capture the majesty of the place on film, along with the thrill of a unique public land hunt.
As luck would have it, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers connected us with Doug Krings, who was planning to take his daughter Emma hunting in the Durfees that very weekend. It was Halloween, and Emma would miss out on trick-or-treating—but she might just have a shot at her first bull elk. Doug invited us along, and less than 48 hours later, we were on our way to the Durfees in Jeff Patnode’s Cessna.
In the months since we hunted elk with Doug and Emma Krings in the Durfees, we have conducted interviews with personalities on all sides of the land exchange issue, from the Wilks’ representative, to BLM staff, to ranchers and members of conservation groups who support and oppose the exchange. Our work is not done yet. Recent developments require more reporting as well as follow-ups with people we’ve already interviewed. We will launch fully into post-production in July 2016 and have the film ready for release by autumn, the start of Montana’s elk season. The timing of the release will maximize impact. The Durfees will be our first short documentary film, and it will set the model for future Mission: Montana productions.
Elliott lives in Bozeman, Montana, but his journalism exploits have taken him from the battlefields of the Middle East to the jungles of Myanmar and the frozen islands of the Russian Arctic. His work from Afghanistan won a National Magazine Award for Multimedia, and he has been featured in the Best American Travel Writing. When he's not ditching work for the woods, he's pursuing feature stories for Outside Magazine, Men's Journal, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other clients. Carrying a notebook, cameras, an audio recorder, and often wearing some kind of helmet, Elliott chases stories about everyday people caught up in extraordinary events. He's the founder of Mission: Montana, and an ambassador for Mystery Ranch Backpacks.
Also based in Bozeman, Greg has worked full-time as a filmmaker, cinematographer, and editor since 2013. His recent media and commercial clients include Outdoor Life Magazine, the Montana Office of Tourism, Backcountry.com, The Climbing Zine, and Stone Age Tools. Greg has directed and produced two films: The Current (2013), about environmental threats to the Animas River watershed in southwest Colorado, and Last Thoughts On The Dirtbag (2015), about climber Luke Mehall. He is passionate about environmental education, the outdoors, and filmmaking. He is the co-founder of Mission: Montana.
We have already completed the majority of principal photography for The Durfees, which took place over a weekend hunt in the Durfees and during interviews in the ensuing months. We’ve already assumed a substantial capital expenditure in terms of equipment, food, fuel, lodging, and associated production costs. Part of the Kickstarter funds will simply help us recoup what we’ve already spent. We still need to do several follow-up interviews that will require multi-day trips across Montana. We are also planning a trip to the Missouri Breaks National Monument to hike into the terrain that will be affected if the proposed Wilks exchange happens. We know what the Wilks want, but we think it’s important to see with our own eyes what they’re offering in exchange.
Kickstarter funds will cover our travel expenses and will enable us to devote ourselves full-time to post-production for a period of several weeks after we’ve completed shooting. Finally, the Kickstarter funds will allow us to contract motion graphics and data visualization assets from a third-party, as well as to license music for the film.
Here’s a basic percentage breakdown of the budget: Cinematography & Editing Fees: 40%; Third-Party Production Fees (Music / Graphics): 20%; Travel & Equipment Expenses: 25%; Kickstarter’s Share & Incentives: 15%
We’ll be posting updates as we move forward with production, and we’re always posting photos from our adventures around Montana and beyond. We’d love to hear from you. Follow us to keep up to date & stay connected:
Our Website: www.missionmt.com
Risks and challenges
Since most of the on-location filming for the Durfees is already safe and secure on our backed-up hard-drives, we are confident that nothing except for a lack of funds can prevent this project from reaching its full potential. Of course, there are always unforeseen obstacles along the road, which for us could come in the form of unexpected journalism or commercial assignments between now and the release date. We are freelancers, and we depend on assignment work to pay the rent, but the success of this Kickstarter campaign would allow us to devote ourselves full-time to completion of the project and on-time delivery of The Durfees for film festivals and public release.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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